Did you know that ants are capable of building igloos?
Or, that Whiskey is made by manipulating Nitrogen into water?
Or, that germs originated in Germany?
If you answered 'No' to any of those questions, then you clearly need to Look Around You. Fortunately this brainchild of Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper is here to help you out. Framed as a pointed parody of British educational shows of the 1970s, the show follows a particular and peculiar path during each episode on its way to some well-earned laughs. With its mix of high-brow silliness and subtle stupidity, this is the kind of show that has cult favorite written all over it.
Every episode opens with a clock counting down to the start of the show as a soothing and forgettable tune plays in the background. As the show itself gets going, we hear our narrator (Nigel Lambert) imploring us to look around at the world we live in until a surprise reveal indicates the special topic of the day. This topic then becomes the springboard for a series of experiments that are slyly hilarious and defiantly absurd. While the self-serious nature of educational shows and scientists are primary targets here, the episodes feature enough tangents to satisfy those who crave a bit of variety. Speaking of variety, just take a look at the immense range of topics covered by the 8 episodes contained within this release:
8. The Brain
These 8 episodes only amount to 71 minutes of material. A spot of maths shows that each episode is only 8 to 9 minutes long. While this was initially a source of concern for me as I expected the episodes to feel half-baked and incomplete, I found that this was far from the truth. These episodes are only as long as they need to be. They get in, discombobulate and entertain, then get out. I would even go so far as to say that too many episodes should not be consumed in one sitting. The repetitive format of the show would only encourage you to look for the seams in the humor rather than letting the waves of deadpan brilliance wash over you.
While the show's humor is all over the map, Popper and Serafinowicz get a lot of mileage out of the rigid nature of scientific experiments and the associated jargon and terminology. This gives them free reign to create wonderfully nonsensical words like mafipulation and bumcivilian while Lambert's matter-of-fact narration gives them an air of authenticity. The experiments themselves are self-contained models of low-tech insanity. Visual and verbal gags give the mundane an unexpected edge as researchers extract eggs from boiling water with their bare hands and then dispose of lab equipment in garbage cans before shooting at them with a pistol.
Given that there is only a bit more than an hour's worth of show in the first place, I won't spoil too many of its gags for you. Suffice it to say, there is a bit of something here for everyone. Popper and Serafinowicz find the middle ground between intelligent and sophomoric and confidently set up shop there. Luckily for us, they also show up on screen as two of the researchers. Popper's researcher gets a computer to compose a song about a little mouse in the key of S. Serafinowicz shows up frequently as another hapless researcher who maintains a stiff upper lip even as the lunacy escalates around him. Edgar Wright appears as a researcher in a few episodes while Simon Pegg and Nick Frost provide fun blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos. However, since the researchers themselves operate silently, the lion's share of credit for establishing the show's tone goes to Nigel Lambert as the narrator. He is mildly condescending but oh so proper in a way that would make James Lipton look like Will Ferrell playing James Lipton.
I suspect this is a show that will reward many repeat viewings because there are so many throwaway gags packed into each episode. Ultimately this show is a tantalizing treat for your brain, which incidentally is a 'wrinkled bag of skin filled with warm water, veins and thought muscles. Think of it as kind of a modified heart with a mind or brain.'
The show was presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. It's difficult to detect faults within the image because it has been intentionally given the slightly soft and washed-out look of an old show from the 1970s that has experienced the ravages of time. With that in mind, the look is delightfully spot-on. The picture is quite clear and watchable.
The English Stereo track was clear and free from defects. It was also the perfect vehicle for the jaunty synths of Gelg (just Popper and Serafinowicz really). The audio track was presented with the option of listening to Lambert's narration or switching it off. While I appreciate having the option, I have to wonder just how useful it is. Without Lambert, the episodes lose a great deal of context. English SDH subtitles were available.
This is definitely a feature-packed release so let's dive right in. First up we have Calcium: Advanced Double Length Module (21:52). This is actually the pilot episode that Serafinowicz and Popper created before garnering enough interest to produce the show we have here. The episode does break away from the format of the show a little by being twice as long as an average entry but the approach remains the same. Calcium is examined in all its glory. We get to see refineries that extract calcium from teeth and bones and view experiments that demonstrate the phenomena of Calcic Image Misplacement. While the episode has quite a few hilarious moments of its own, it tends to run out of steam before reaching the finish line. Clearly, the shorter format for the rest of the episodes was a sound idea.
Next we get the Little Mouse Full-length pop video (3:18). This is a video for the aforementioned song created by Popper's computer about a man's friendship with a little mouse. It is both of the 70s and over the top at the same time. This is followed by the most deceptive extra on this disc. Pages from Ceefax is an entirely text based feature that aims to replicate a free service of the 1970s that enabled folks to read about the news and weather on their TV screen. In addition to those topics, we get to read about cookery, morse (as in the code) and castles. This is a surprisingly detailed and funny collection of musings that read like old articles from The Onion. There is enough content in here to keep viewers engaged for quite a while. Test Card (2:34) stays true to its name as it is just a test pattern followed by credits for this release.
If that weren't enough, we also get two commentary tracks for each episode. The Programme Maker's Commentary is presented by Popper, Serafinowicz and the director Tim Kirkby. This commentary track was recorded specifically for the U.S. release of the show and presents us with a trio of guys who are very much at ease with each other. It's a fun listen as the trio keeps the witty banter going at a rapid clip while dropping little nuggets of information about the production along the way. The other commentary tracks for the episodes deliver considerably less than they promise. These consist of Guest Commentaries by Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The 4 pairs each take on 2 episodes. Pegg and Frost manage to be effortlessly funny while giving us a bit of insight into the creators of the show based on their lengthy friendship with them. Parker and Stone give the most intelligent commentaries as they draw parallels between American educational shows like 3-2-1 Contact and what we have here. The remaining four guys don't seem to have anything interesting to say about the show as they ham it up or ramble on with self-indulgent tangents. If you had to pick just one commentary to listen to, I would suggest the one by Popper, Serafinowicz and Kirkby.
Intelligent absurdity is a tough tone to establish. Serafinowicz and Popper make it seem effortless as they not only land in the sweet spot between subtle and slapstick, but do so while operating within the strict confines of a 1970s educational show. Aided by Nigel Lambert's convincing narration and a meticulous attention to detail, what we have here is an oddity that is definitely worth a look. Highly Recommended.